Men's wretchedness in soothe I so deplore: Cameron in Russia

Things have turned rather Russian today. First Andrew Marr started the week with his Radio 4 programme entirely devoted to the mighty Soviet writer Vasily Grossman.

If you've never come across this fantastic journalist and novelist of the 1940s and '50s, then do look him up. I read Anthony Beever’s A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 a couple of years ago and was totally blown away – unbelievable human sacrifice in Russia's "Great Patriotic War", Stalin's secret police picking people off even during wartime, and … some excellent writing.

After this morning’s Grossman we've had bags of rolling news coverage of David Cameron's visit to Moscow today, the first prime ministerial trip there since Tony Blair in 2005. Hmm. What to say about this? We’ve had the usual shadow play of what the PM will or won’t raise with Medvedev and Putin. Business – lots. Litvinenko – yes. Human rights – sort of. 

In a speech Cameron did in fact touch on the importance of the rule of law. A key passage was:

"When people get economically richer they make legitimate demands for political freedoms to match their economic freedoms. And as they start to benefit from a free media, guaranteed human rights, the rule of law, and a greater stake in how their society is run so they will have the confidence and energy to invest in a new cycle of innovation and growth. And that’s something I believe is true in every part of the world."

A cautious mention of human rights, really, but it’s still there. Amnesty has a whole checklist of things it would like Cameron to discuss with his Russia counterparts (or at least for Cameron’s “people” to do so with their counterparts), but as ever the political choreography is constrained and the language sieved free of anything genuinely challenging. In fact in tonight’s news bulletins you’re going to hear more about David Cameron’s – not very-impressive-sounding – go at speaking a few words of Russian than about the nitty gritty of human rights concerns in Russia.

These diplomatic entourages aren’t, I tend to think, the real business of political exchange between countries. Simon Tisdall’s assessment – that Vladimir Putin will decode Mr Cameron’s mild criticisms in Lenin-esque terms, seeing his British counterpart as a “modern-day useful idiot” – seems a bit too convoluted and negative to me. To use the almost-obligatory ice metaphor for current Anglo-Russian relations – a “thaw” in relations is surely going to come about over a long time frame and with numerous different factors at play. I’m not holding my breath for big changes form this one visit. 

By the way, I can't resist another Russian cultural mention. I liked the sound of the new film about Faust by the (excellent) Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. The reviewer in The Times says: "It is literary, ambitious, almost aggressively intellectual and, at times, practically unwatchable". Great! Sounds like my kind of film.

The Times reviewer also says "There is almost always at least one other thing going on in addition to the element on which we are supposed to be focusing", which might be a neat way of summing up the way that highly stage-managed trips like Cameron's to Russia are always multi-dimensional.

Here the hope is that beneath the surface layer (trade, Litvinenko) there are detailed discussions about the need for Russia to ensure that human rights activists, journalists and politically-minded business people can all be allowed to participate freely in Russian life.

At one point in Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles says: “In the end, you are exactly -what you are / Put on a wig with a million curls, / put the highest heeled boots on your feet, / yet you remain in the end just what you are”. Likewise, dress it up how you like, but Russia’s human rights record is still as dark as anything in Goethe’s amazing tale.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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